'Rangers Inside And Out'
By Sean Hartnett
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Henrik Lundqvist is a man on a mission.
It's been truly incredible to watch the New York Rangers goalie figure out a way to top himself game after game, as he's taking his play between the pipes to another gear.
In Monday night's 3-1 victory, Lundqvist stunned Montreal's Bell Centre by saving 40 of 41 shots on goal. At 32, his time appears to have finally come after so many years of frustrating playoff exits. With the Rangers returning to Madison Square Garden with a 2-0 series advantage, Lundqvist is just two steps away from finally reaching the promised land of his first-ever Stanley Cup Final.
He is a man determined to squeeze every bit of effort out of himself.
"When I kind of sit down and collect my thoughts, my goal here is to leave it all out there," Lundqvist said. "If it's going to be enough, we'll see."
Lundqvist is playing at a supreme level, to the point where beating the Rangers has become nearly impossible. In his last five games, Lundqvist has a .964 save percentage and a 1.20 goals-against average. In four of those five games, he has held opponents to a single goal.
The Canadiens have only held a lead for 17 seconds during this best-of-seven series. That came in the first period of Game 2, as the Canadiens piled the pressure on Lundqvist from the get-go, before Ryan McDonagh answered back moments later with an unassisted goal.
"The first period was a tough one," Lundqvist said. "We knew they were going to come hard. They had a really strong 20 minutes there, but then going out in the second with the lead, it felt good. We felt confident. I felt like we played a really strong second and third."
Montreal piled constant waves of pressure on Lundqvist, eventually unleashing a total of 17 first-period shots on goal on the sensational Swede. Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault pointed to Lundqvist as the only reason why the Blueshirts were still in the game.
"They had a tremendous push," Vigneault said. "They had total control and possession."
Lundqvist went on to make an incredible 19 saves in the third period. Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien admitted that Lundqvist took Game 2 from the Habs.
"You know what? The reason why we lost the game tonight was Lundqvist," Therrien said. "Lundqvist was phenomenal, phenomenal. Stole the game."
You have to feel for Dustin Tokarski, who was thrown into the fire of making his playoff debut against the magnificent Lundqvist. Tokarski proved to be solid under the tremendous spotlight of making his postseason debut in the famous Canadiens sweater at Bell Center, but no one is beating Lundqvist these days. It wouldn't have made a difference had Carey Price been standing on the other end of the ice, or any of Montreal's franchise legends including Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden in their respective primes.
That's how unbelievably Lundqvist is playing. He's nearly unbeatable.
Before the Eastern Conference finals began, all the talk was about whether Lundqvist could turn around his poor career numbers at Bell Centre. So much for it being Lundqvist's "house of horrors." He has put that to bed pretty quickly.
Despite his all-world performances, Lundqvist remains endearingly humble. Throughout his nine-year career, his head has never swelled with thoughts of self-importance. He constantly deflects praise to his teammates.
"I had to make a couple saves here and there, but as a group we played really well," Lundqvist said.
PAST PLAYOFF EXITS ARE FUELING LUNDQVIST'S FIRE
The painful experience of losing out to the Devils in six games in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals still burns deep. After Adam Henrique scored the series winning goal in overtime, a stunned and tearful Lundqvist watched rival Martin Brodeur and the Devils reach yet another Stanley Cup Final.
"You don't want to sit at the end of the year and feel like you had more to give," Lundqvist said. "That's what I felt a little bit the last time we were in the conference final. We didn't reach our full potential, and it was extremely disappointing to end the season like that."
Lundqvist is sick of watching other great goalies lift Lord Stanley over their heads. The 32-year-old knows there's a tight window for him to win his first-ever Stanley Cup and is determined to do everything possible to make it happen. As he said, he's leaving everything on the ice.
"My goal right now to really try to reach my full potential and inspire teammates and everybody that's helping us right now to kind of reach that level and see how far it takes us," Lundqvist said.
The way Lundqvist is playing, it looks like he's very close to leading the Rangers to a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes. History repeating itself 20 years later appears to be a genuine possibility.
Lundqvist is two wins shy of passing Mike Richter's franchise record of 41 playoff victories. This season, Lundqvist became the Rangers' franchise wins leader and all-time shutouts leader. He's breaking nearly every record in team history. The only hurdle that remains is matching the excellence shown by Richter in that magical year of 1994.
Perhaps, when the Stanley Cup is awarded at the conclusion of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, Lundqvist will be finally shedding tears of joy.
The King is very close to being crowned.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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